As we approach the release of Britney Spears' new album, Femme Fatale, it's become unmistakably clear that the pop music landscape for female singers has changed immensely since her last album, Circus, in 2008. Now 29, Britney has been nothing short of an American icon since she burst onto the scene more than 10 years ago with her first album ...Baby One More Time, in which America's sweetheart confused us by positioning herself as The Girl Next Door who's not afraid to lose her innocence.
Since then, Britney has stayed true to her sound: mostly dance-pop, with the occasional ballad thrown in for good measure. But her music has definitely matured and evolved with each album, as she's paired with timely producers and songwriters. Most critics would point to 2004's "Toxic" as a pivotal moment in her musical career, given the track's impressive foray into a throwback aesthetic that paired tech-inspired electro-pop with old-school disco (plus, the video was awesome).
The thing that's really interesting about Femme Fatale and the Britney of 2011 is that Britney hasn't adopted the new trend in pop music that has seemingly helped stabilize the careers of so many women in pop music these days: being weird.
Cyndi Lauper and Madonna did it in the early '80s. Missy Elliott ran with it. And Lady Gaga brought it back, hard core. Katy Perry, Ke$ha, Nicki Minaj, Jessie J, and even Rihanna and Christina Aguilera have followed suit, all incorporating over-the-top elements into their personal brands. The biggest trend in mainstream pop music among women these days seems to be dressing and/or acting a little bit bonkers. With the exception of chart-toppers like Jennifer Lopez, Sara Bareilles or Adele, weird is the new sexy.
And sexy has has always been one of Britney's secret weapons. Britney always came armed with sexiness and the heart and soul of the girl next door. But with The Fame, Lady Gaga burst onto the scene a couple of years ago with Euro-inspired dance music that was certainly catchy. Unlike other artists, though, Lady Gaga had a plan of action in mind and wouldn't let "Just Dance" be a passing fad. By the time "Poker Face" became a hit, Lady Gaga had quickly cemented herself in the public eye as a brand-new type of pop star: one whose personality was so unforgivably, unforgettably strange that we were forced to pay attention. While she's also a pretty girl with plenty of sexiness, she eschewed both, focusing instead on wild wigs, wraparound sunglasses, gender-bending couture, her very own "disco stick" and a never-ending supply of weird.
And between the dedication to filming decadent videos, jaw-dropping live performances and an supplying her fan base with an never-ending connection to her (becoming an enormous presence on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, the necessary tools of the 21st century for performers of all kinds), everything sort of fell into place. Lady Gaga is an icon now. And so is being totally, unabashedly, unashamedly weird.
It's no coincidence that Katy Perry went for over-the-top Latex costumes or that Ke$ha matched her woozy, sound with an aesthetic that glorified garbage bags and glitter. That's how things work now. For every talented, radio-friendly artist like Leona Lewis or Kelly Clarkson, something weird wades in the water. Nicki Minaj brought female rapping back to the top of the charts not only by pulling faces but also by wearing neon wigs and matching bodysuits and snarling at her devoted fans.
Even the burgeoning Jessie J -- who, before flying solo, had already established herself as a talented songwriter, giving Miley Cyrus an undeniable anthem in "Party In The U.S.A." -- is a truly gifted vocalist, with pipes comparable to those of Whitney Houston at the peak of her career. But the apparent need to define her "oddball" personality -- from a severe, jet-black bob and "sexy goth" costumes to the polysexual prospect of her "Do It Like A Dude" (and spikes protruding from her black lips) -- might be running the risk of overshadowing her masterful vocal talent.
So where does this leave Britney Spears on the eve of Femme Fatale? Well, she's certainly not going all weird on us. And she's not doing anything too different to the "Britney brand." The album is modern and upbeat, and Britney looks better than ever. But nowhere do we spot anything that necessarily pushes the envelope in the way that many female pop artists try to now. Lady Gaga has horns. Katy Perry is currently an alien. Rihanna has flaming red hair. And Ke$ha, a white chick from Tennessee, wears enormous Native American headdresses. Even Christina Aguilera got into the act by going "Bionic" on her last album of the same name (which never fully connected with an audience because we'd rather hear her wail than play a robot).
Yet, Britney Spears has chosen to stay on the same path that has worked in the past, just like Taylor Swift, Avril Lavigne and Pink. And there's nothing wrong with that! Like lovable Taylor, adorably scowly Avril, and badass Pink, Britney's sticking to the formula that works. She knows how we like our Britney, and she's chosen to not make a sudden gear shift that could ostensibly catch her fans off guard. So hats off to her for sticking to her guns.
However, considering her mammoth presence in the world of pop music -- after all, before there was Gaga, before there was Katy, before there was Ke$ha, there was Britney -- could being a sex kitten with a great track record for dance songs be engulfed by a sea of women who now measure their success by the extent to which they can make us scratch our heads and go "WTF"? There's room for sexy, and there's room for weird. And we can't wait to see where Femme Fatale fits into our weird new world.